The job of truancy officer is nothing new. As long ago as the early 1900s, schools employed officers to patrol the streets on foot or on bike. Their task was quite simply "to get the children into school".
These days the job description is a little more wordy. And with mobile phones, electronic registration systems and CCTV cameras, it's all a good deal more hi-tech. But the aim is still the same - to identify children who should be in school, get them back there quickly and prevent them truanting again.
"We want our truancy officers to be a visible presence on the streets," says Paul Kelly, principal school attendance officer in Hackney, east London, whose recent advert for a truancy officer specified the need for a competent cyclist.
"It's a small borough and we find that putting officers on bicycles works well. If they get a call from a school, they can respond quickly and flexibly - it's possible to cycle across the borough in 15 minutes. And they wear a special jacket, so everyone knows who they are." Truancy officers talk about the satisfaction of getting young people back on track and turning persistent truants into regular attenders. But many also admit that they quite enjoy the "cat-and-mouse" element of the job. A good truancy officer will know their patch inside-out and will have a good idea where truants are likely to head depending on the weather or time of day. "I spend a lot of time planning my route, building a network of contacts who can give me tip-offs and generally trying to stay a step ahead," says one London truancy officer. "But I wouldn't call it a game, because truancy is such a serious business."
Latest figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that more than 233,000 pupils in England are persistent absentees - missing at least one day of school a week. Studies also show that children like this often underperform in their GCSEs and have an increased chance of becoming involved in crime. So the role of truancy officers is vital - making a difference not just to individuals, but to schools and whole communities.
In most authorities, officers spend a large part of their week on the streets, often being joined on patrol by education welfare officers, teachers or police officers. But the job also has a strategic element. That means going into schools to give assemblies or talks about truancy. The job involves identifying children who are persistently absent and working closely with their families.
Some officers, like Linda Fitzpatrick in Liverpool, work primarily on the strategic side. "I visit my designated schools once a week and liaise with heads of year and learning mentors, going through pupils' records and identifying those who are at risk of becoming persistent absentees. Then we invite parents into school and draw up an action plan for each pupil," she says.
"We look at ways to support the pupil and the family, but if that doesn't work, we might have to think about court action. The system is working well and Liverpool is closing the gap dramatically on the national attendance average."
So who can apply for the job? It varies between areas and depends on the nature of the post, but for jobs where the emphasis is on patrolling the streets, experience of working with young people will usually be more important than any other qualifications.
"We see the job of truancy officer as quite different to that of education welfare officer," says Mr Kelly. "We will happily consider applicants who are teachers, charity workers or youth workers. The important thing is to find people who are tactful, sensitive and understand just why this job is so important."
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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Salary Pounds 25,000-Pounds 35,000. Beyond that, openings for promotion tend to be quite limited, though there's the possibility of moving into a management role, overseeing other officers, in which case salary can rise to more than Pounds 40,000.
- Key qualities Communication skills. You need to be comfortable dealing with pupils, teachers, parents and outside agencies.
- Next steps Posts may be advertised either locally or nationally. Jobs tend to be concentrated in the larger cities.